Thursday, December 20, 2007


by Rod Dreher (

The other night, I spoke to my friend (and godfather) Vladimir Grigorenko, the iconographer at St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral here in Dallas. He told me in passing that an editor at Time magazine had contacted him some weeks back and asked him if he would create an icon for them. The subject was not Jesus Christ, nor the Virgin Mary, nor any saint.

The subject was Vladimir Putin.

Our Vladimir told them no, it was out of the question. Putin, in the place of Christ or a saint? That would be a travesty. His objection was not political, but theological. Vladimir told me the editor then asked for a recommendation of an iconographer who would be willing to take the commission. "I told him I would not recommend anybody take such a commission," Vladimir told me.

"Vladimir," I said, "do you understand what you've done? Time is probably going to name Putin their Person of the Year. If you took that commission, you would become world-famous. Your work would have been seen everywhere. You might have made a lot of money out of it."

"What is that?" he said, dismissively. It wouldn't be right to do such a thing, he continued, so there was never any question of fame or riches. Putin deserves to be the Person of the Year, he went on, because of his impact on Russia and the world, but Putin should not be depicted in anything resembling an icon.

I've been thinking since our conversation about the religious and artistic integrity in the stance he took. To talk to Vladimir about it is to realize that for him it wasn't any real temptation. The things of God are reserved for God. Period. Full stop. The end.

Well, I just found out that Time has indeed named Putin its Person of the Year. And they used on the cover a photograph of Putin. Time obviously abandoned its plan to render Putin as an Orthodox icon, and I hope it was because they could find no iconographer willing to go along with it. Still, think for a minute about the witness Vladimir Grigorenko gives by his refusal of fame and fortune for the sake of honoring God and sacred tradition. Could you do that? If you were an artist -- and not a wealthy one -- and were given the opportunity to draw the cover of the most important issue of one of the most important magazines in the world, would you be able to turn it down as instantly and as definitively as Vladimir did?

I hope and pray that I would have done so, but I know myself, and my own weaknesses, too well to say for sure. I think I would have reached the same conclusion he did, and that it wouldn't have taken very long to have done so, but I don't know that for sure. The world can be so alluring, the temptation to compromise comes in all kinds of ways, and the ability of we frail humans to rationalize is enormous.

And then a guy, an ordinary guy, a guy you go to church with, and goof around with, comes along and does something like that, and bam!, you realize what integrity really is. He makes it look easy. But see, this doesn't come from nowhere. Vladimir, who is 43, was raised in the Soviet Union by parents who were party members and atheists. After the fall of the USSR, he discovered Orthodox Christianity, and converted. He became an iconographer (my Dallas Morning News colleague Jeff Weiss profiled him seven years ago). Now he and his wife and kids live in Dallas, where he has spent the past few years creating the iconography for the inside of St. Seraphim Cathedral (click that link to see his work, or come by for evening vespers or Sunday morning liturgy; you really have to see the glory of God shining forth from these images in person). The Grigorenkos are deeply faithful to the church, in a steady, unobtrusive, humble way. Here's Vladimir's website, where you can see more of his iconography.

The thing I realized thinking this week on Vladimir's decision was that to get to the point where you can take a stand like that for God, at serious professional sacrifice to yourself, you have to die to yourself in countless little ways, every single day. If any of us are to find the strength and the courage to stand up for our beliefs in ways that cost us, we have to live the Christian life in a faithful, disciplined way, every day of the year.

Last night at dinner, Vladimir and I were discussing the challenge of raising faithful Christian children in our culture, and he said, "Listen, you can't just tell your children what to believe. You have to show them. You can't force them to believe what you believe, or hit them over the head with the faith. You have to live it out. In our family, the church is our life. You show that to your children, and leave the rest up to God."

This week, Vladimir showed his children what it means to be a Christian. And not only his children.

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